As Hollywood rushes to embrace every futuristic device from 3-D to CGI, Farran Smith Nehme has her sights set squarely on the past. The classic film blogger focuses on cinema’s golden age, from about 1930 to 1960, when romantic idols smoldered and heroes hung from the edges of cliffs. Nehme has a knack for making vintage cinema sexy to younger viewers because she is a younger viewer, having grown up watching old black-and-white films while other kids were riveted by the adventures of Scooby-Doo. She launched her website, the Self-Styled Siren, in 2005, initially writing about her favorite classic movies for a small but appreciative audience in a “sleepy little corner of the web.” Over time, her encyclopedic knowledge of film – coupled with her razor-sharp wit – earned her a much larger readership, including high-profile fans such as Vanity Fair’s James Wolcott and Tom Carson of GQ. A friendship she cultivated with film critic Lou Lumenick of the New York Post helped her make the leap from pixels to programming, as the duo was asked to curate a film series for Turner Classic Movies in January 2010 called Shadows of Russia.
“Being able to say that you programmed something for TCM is pretty much the dream of any classic film freak,” she says. The series led to her “single proudest moment as a blogger,” a blogathon with Marilyn Ferdinand of the blog Ferdy on Films, which involved 81 bloggers and raised more than $30,000 to support the National Film Preservation Foundation’s restoration of two silent film shorts. An encore entitled For the Love of Film (Noir) will run from February 14 – 21, 2011, benefiting the Film Noir Foundation’s restoration of 1950’s The Sound of Fury. With so many favorites, is it possible for the New York-based writer to recommend a user-friendly classic for viewers accustomed to big-screen pyrotechnics? “Double Indemnity,” she answers without hesitation. “It’s so damn witty.” After the jump, the Siren’s thoughts on Casablanca, Hitchcock, and why not every old movie is a classic.
BlackBook: With so many classic films out there, how do you decide what to write about? A lot of the high studio-era movies I like have fallen into obscurity or haven’t gotten the respect I think they deserve because people are writing about them as camp or quaint and without serious artistic merit. So I’ve tried to look to some genres that really don’t get much attention. I like women’s pictures of the 1930s and ‘40s and on through the ‘50s, and I like melodramas a lot, not just film noir but straight up dramas. It’s not necessarily a site with a mission besides for me to blather on about my personal cinematic obsessions, but if there is one, it’s me trying to get some of the things I love more love from other people.
BB: So you’re probably not going to spend much time on Casablanca? I did do a post one time about Casablanca, an anecdote about [director] Michael Curtiz’s accent. So I do some biggish movies from time to time. But it has to be from a different or personal angle, because coming up with something fresh to say about Casablanca is very difficult. Even The Maltese Falcon, which I absolutely adore, would be a tall order. It is, in a sense, easier to go after something that hasn’t been written about as much.
BB: To what do you attribute your site’s rather large and influential audience? I never really tried to push it or make it big. There are a number of things you can do if you want a site to take off and I never did any of them. But eventually, because I just kept plugging away at the rate of one or two posts a week, I did start getting more attention. Then, in the past couple of years, things have really taken off, and there were a few posts I did that became more popular than I ever anticipated. I never know what will get the most attention. Sometimes I post things thinking nobody will really care and I get a hundred comments. It’s another reason for me not to try and target things for popularity because, apparently, I’m a rather poor judge of it.
BB: Your site has been championed by a number of high-profile film writers. How did you get on their radar? Well, I’m read a lot by other bloggers and I’ve gotten to know a number of them, which really pleases me. But I guess the site’s first patron, the first blogger that linked to me was James Wolcott of Vanity Fair, and he linked to me really early on, in late 2007. A great many of the readers I have today are people who discovered me through his site, so I remain very grateful to him. Over the years I would find other people turning up in comments, like Glenn Kenny, who used to be the main reviewer for Premiere and now writes for MSN, among other places. Then there’s Lou Lumenick of the New York Post, and Stephen Whitty of the Newark Star-Ledger. And I’ve recently been corresponding with Kent Jones, who used to run film at Lincoln Center and recently made a documentary with Martin Scorsese. So a number of people I really admire read it, which is amazing to me.
BB: You’ve got a pretty diverse community of readers. There’s a real age range. Some of my commenters are pretty old and some of them are quite young. I even have a handful of teenagers, which is really nice. There’s also a pretty active classic film blogging community out there, almost all of them doing it for love, because it’s not something you’re going to make the big bucks doing. They have a surprising range of ages as well, from people who saw some of these movies when they first came out to people who were born when I was in college.
BB: What constitutes a classic film for you? I don’t have a problem with calling things old movies. I guess tagging anything as old is considered pejorative, but for me it’s something of a compliment, at least as far as movies are concerned. But not every old movie is classic in the purest sense – a great movie for the ages. I think that Turner Classic Movies has popularized the term for good reason because they want to draw people in to see these movies. Even movies that are not a complete success overall have something about them that’s really superb, like maybe the cinematography is brilliant or there’s one really great performance. But to be a true classic, you want something that has stood the test of time, that people still watch with pleasure.
BB: How do you connect with people who don’t have much experience with classic cinema? I do have an evangelical idea that people who think they don’t like classic movies just haven’t seen the right ones. But, realistically, it’s something of a specialized kind of website. If you’re the sort of person who just doesn’t want to see anything that’s in black and white, you’re probably not going to bother with it. Hopefully, readers will find something to engage their attention, even if I am writing about a film they’ve never heard of. And people have gone out and seen some of the movies I’ve written up. Some of my commenters will come back and say, I saw this movie you wrote about a few weeks ago and it was really good. That’s always really gratifying.
BB: Where do you think the resistance to old movies comes from? Older movies tend to have a slower rhythm, and of course you don’t have same kind of special effects. The acting styles are a barrier for some people too. They’re not used to the presentational style, particularly in some of the older films, say like in the 1930s. The kind of very realistic, emotional, Method-influenced acting that we’ve been seeing for the past 20 or 30 years is not the only style of acting that’s legitimate or has things to offer. If you sit down with an older film, there is a lot to admire with the performance of an actor that might seem a little too in-your-face to someone who hasn’t been watching that kind of thing. And there are a number of classic movies that play very well to a modern sensibility. If I’m personally recommending things for people I’ll often start with good gateway drugs. Film noir often plays really well to modern audiences, because we relate to the cynicism and the dialogue and the dark deeds.
BB: Can you hook us up with some of those gateway drugs? One that I always recommend to people who haven’t watched a lot of classic films is Double Indemnity because it’s so damn witty. People hook into it right away. Screwball comedies from the 1930s are also good for people who haven’t seen a lot of old stuff. My Man Godfrey, Bringing Up Baby, and His Girl Friday are a great deal funnier than people might think. John Ford movies still play really well. Hitchcock too, and not just the ones that people have often seen a lot, like Psycho or The Birds. Go back to some of the earlier ones like Strangers on a Train or my personal favorite, Shadow of a Doubt. People are often surprised at the range Hitchcock had. They might think of him as weird and creepy, not realizing that he did some romantic films like Notorious and some fairly darker and more cerebral films as well. Of course, some of the movies that I really love might be harder for people to get into, like anything from Busby Berkeley.
BB: How did you get hooked up with TCM for the “Shadows of Russia” series? I did a post about Cyd Charisse after she died. She had a very small part in a legendary movie called Mission to Moscow – I had never seen it at that point – and Lou Lumenick and I got into a conversation about it. We started batting back and forth the idea of how the Russians and Communism had been treated in American movies. There were the comedies made in the 1930s, and then during the war, the government and the studios were trying to sell us on the notion of being aligned with these people that we had been thinking of as dirty Bolsheviks for a long time. Then, of course, there was the post-war whiplash, and Wham! They’re evil again. We thought it would make an interesting series. Lou was able to pitch it to the programmers at TCM, and they went for it, to my complete delight.
BB: And this led to the blogathons? In February of this year, Marilyn Ferdinand of the blog Ferdy on Films, Greg Ferrara, who has a blog called Cinema Styles, and I put together a blogathon, which is basically a bunch of people blogging on a common topic. In this case, we were asking people who were reading the posts on the various sites to donate to the National Film Preservation Foundation. We ran it for a week around February 14 and raised over $30,000. And when they discovered a cache of 75 silent films in New Zealand and were repatriating them, two of them, The Sergeant and The Better Man, were restored with our funding, and there will be a note to that effect on the films when they’re released on DVD. That was probably my single proudest moment as a blogger, because film preservation is a primary concern for any classic film buff. The old stock is extremely unstable, a lot of our archives are in precarious condition, and film restoration is an extremely expensive process and not something that for-profit corporations are necessarily willing to do for something that’s never going to have a huge audience.
BB: What’s next? The next blogathon, For the Love of Film (Noir), is going to benefit the Film Noir Foundation, which tracks down and restores old film noir that are not in the pipeline for studio restoration. We’re also going to be doing it for a specific movie, The Sound of Fury, aka Try and Get Me, which is an important film because it was made during the blacklist era and there are a number of blacklisted people involved in it. It’s based on the same story that Fritz Lang based Fury on, which was a famous anti-lynching movie from the 1930s. It’s nice for a charity to allow people to have a direct impact on what they’re supporting. They can look at a movie and say, Hey, it’s still here and it’s looking good because I chipped in $25. That’s a good thing.
[Photo by John Burke]